The critical mass of requested tax increases facing residents of Lawrence and Douglas County is hard to ignore.
Even in difficult economic times, it’s not smart to simply hunker down and offer no initiatives for the future, but voters and elected officials are going to have to choose carefully the projects that are important enough to justify tax increases in the next year or two.
The state’s sales tax rose by 1 percent at the beginning of this month on top of an additional 0.55 percent local sales tax increase that went into effect last year for the T transit system and road maintenance projects. Officials of Douglas County and the Lawrence school district both have floated budget proposals that call for property taxes of more than 5 mills. While it’s likely that both entities will approve some kind of tax increase, they probably will — and should — arrive at a more moderate figure.
Lawrence city commissioners proudly decided on Tuesday to keep the city’s property tax levy steady next year, but increases in water, sewer and trash fees still are on the table. That may not be a tax, but it is money out of taxpayers’ pockets. And there’s the matter of a proposed library expansion that would add 2 mills to the city’s levy. Rather than include that amount in their budget, commissioners approved a November ballot on the proposal, which may be a tough sell depending on other tax increases approved between now and then.
The city and county budget proposals include at least modest salary increases for their employees. They may deserve those raises, but many workers in the private sector won’t get any raises this year.
Again, government can’t afford to stand still. If funding an additional psychiatrist for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center keeps even a few people with mental illness out of the county jail, it might quickly pay for itself. Supporting economic development and promoting this area’s unique history can pay off for local business and tourism.
The city and county can skimp on road maintenance and other capital projects for only so long. If they delay maintenance or fail to set aside money for large projects, they will be playing catch-up, like the city is doing now, using revenue from the new sales tax to address serious street deficiencies.
Almost all of the proposed uses for increased local tax money have merit, but taken together, they are more than taxpayers can handle right now. Taxpayers probably can tolerate modest increases if those funds are directed carefully to initiatives that will have the greatest benefit for the community. We need to keep moving forward, but some projects may have to wait.